Steven Weber

Whac-A-Mole Leadership

One of my favorite arcade games is Whac-A-Mole. When you drop your token in the machine, you have a limited amount of time to "whac" as many moles as you can. In the beginning of the game, one or two moles pop their heads up and it is fairly easy to hit each one. About twenty seconds into the game, the moles start popping up three at a time and when you smash a mole with the mallet it may pop up again.

Whac-A-Mole is similar to the daily routine of a principal. From the time you arrive at school in the morning until late in the evening, moles pop up. Your job is to address each mole and to prioritize which one is most important. In this article, I am going to describe the "six moles" a principal must address in order to be a good leader.

Six Moles A Principal Must Address

  1. Family Concerns
    Principals receive phone calls, e-mails, and face-to-face messages from families. If you work in the car-rider line at an elementary school, a parent or grandparent may share a concern with you as they drop a child off at school. When you check your e-mail, you may have messages from multiple families with a concern about something that happened the day before. There are times when a family member has a concern about something that is a district-level concern, but it is the principal's job to advocate for families and contact the central office, or assist the family in navigating communication with the central office. Families are not moles, but concerns pop up frequently and the principal cannot ignore family concerns. It is not wise to whac a family member, but the concern must be addressed.
  2. Instructional Rounds

    A principal wears several hats; and the instructional leadership hat is critical to the success of the school. If a principal is focused on e-mail, returning phone calls, developing professional development, and attending meetings, he or she will not be able to focus on the main thing: learning. When a principal visits classrooms for formal or informal observations, it helps him or her get a pulse for student achievement and curriculum implementation.

    A principal should be a coach, cheerleader, critical friend, and more! If a principal does not visit classrooms on a regular basis, the school will not continue to grow. Instructional rounds cannot be something that a principal does when the mole pops up. This important leadership role must be part of the principal's regular schedule.

  3. Student Discipline

    Student discipline pops up unexpectedly. There may be an issue on the bus ride to school, a dispute on the playground, or the breaking of a rule on the way to the next class. Handling student discipline is one of the main roles of principal leadership. Teachers and staff assist with student discipline, but when this mole pops up its head, the principal cannot ignore it and move to the next three moles.

    Some of you reading this article may be thinking, "If student discipline is a mole, then whac it." You cannot use a hammer to hit every problem. When you use the Whac-A-Mole approach to student discipline, it means you handle the problems as they arise, rather than waiting for more problems to pop up.

  4. E-mail

    One of the most challenging moles for a principal is e-mail. If you sit at your desk from 8:00 a.m. to noon, you will see multiple moles pop up on your screen. More building principals are carrying a personal or school-assigned smartphone on their hips. At one point, it was easy to avoid e-mail because you could walk away from the computer. Now principals have the ability to check e-mail in the hallway, in meetings, while they are off campus, at home, and any time day or night. If principals focus on each e-mail as it pops up, they will get distracted and miss out on other important leadership duties.

    E-mail is a great analogy to the game Whac-A-Mole: when you reply to e-mail, it continues to pop up. Time management is important and Whac-A-Mole leadership involves more than whacking each e-mail, hoping to bop all of the e-mail moles.

  5. Professional Development

    Leading professional development is important. When school staff members stop learning, they stop growing. It is easy for principals to spend several hours developing a video, presentation, or hands-on learning activity. Quality professional development requires planning, learning goals, and materials. Principals are wise to develop a teacher leadership team that can assist with professional development. This will allow the principal to have a role in leading professional development, without having to plan the entire session. This year, for example, our school has conducted professional development on the six instructional shifts (Common Core State Standards), technology integration, literacy, and school safety.

    If the principal ignores professional development, then it may not happen. However, a building principal cannot sit in the office and develop every professional development session while ignoring other moles throughout the school.

  6. Communication

    Communication is an important responsibility and it cannot be ignored. Principals need to communicate through the school website, e-mail, newsletters, video, blogs, face-to-face meetings, PTA meetings, coffee hour, phone calls, and informal meetings in the parking lot. Principals need to communicate with classroom teachers through classroom observations, e-mail, blog posts, faculty meetings, notes, and informal meetings. A principal could spend his or her entire day developing communication documents or preparing a speech for the next meeting.

    Principals need to be intentional about communication. It is important to see communication as a mole that you whac but also as something you plan for. If you are not communicating and marketing the great things about your school, then who is marketing your school? You cannot afford to let the communication mole pop up too many times.

Whac-A-Mole leadership is a humorous way to describe the day of a principal. We can all laugh and relate to the moles that pop up. You can probably describe several more moles that principals must address if you reflect on your past week. If the goal of leadership becomes whacking the next mole, we may miss the most important things.

Leaders are usually distinguished by their ability to "think big." But when their focus shifts, they suddenly start thinking small. They micro manage, they get caught up in details better left to others, they become consumed with the trivial and unimportant. And to make matters worse, this tendency can be exacerbated by an inclination toward perfectionism.

Mark Sanborn, "Why Leaders Fail"

Per Stephen Covey's time management matrix (as shared by Michael Hyatt of Intentional Leadership), principals must ask, "Is this mole important and urgent?" or "Is this mole urgent, but not important?" As the moles pop up at your school, I wish you the best. Keep whacking moles, but make certain you are focused on the right mole.

Steven Weber is a former classroom teacher, assistant principal, and state Department of Education consultant in Arkansas and North Carolina and currently the principal of Hillsborough (N.C.) Elementary School. He is a former board member of North Carolina ASCD and a featured guest on the Whole Child Podcast. Connect with Weber on the ASCD EDge® social network, by e-mail at, or on Twitter @curriculumblog.

Comments (1)

Kathleen Knauth

April 10, 2013

Before this year I compared the principalship to this crazy game and I loved every minute of it.  This year I am a typist and a statistician and I hate every second of it.  Different job description!

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